Looking ahead

So your congregation has it figured out: “This is who we are, this is what matters to us.”

But here’s the next question: Where should we go from here?

Knowing that — having a clear vision for the future and a sense of how to make it happen — is definitely a congregational strength.

But while congregations have lots of ideas, they don’t always know how to get from here to there — to turn a vision of what could be into a reality. The U. S. Congregational Life Survey found that more than half the worshipers in a typical congregation — 56 percent — say their congregation is always ready to try something new. Somewhat less, 42 percent, say their place of worship has a clear vision for its ministry and has goals to which they are strongly committed.

But only one in three believes that the congregation actually is moving in new directions or has a strong sense of excitement about the congregation’s future. In other words, the ideas may be there, but the follow-through and commitment to make them happen may not.

Congregations need to pay attention to the future, to what’s to come, not just to what is today. And it makes sense that congregations that understanding where they want to go and are working to make change happen rather than resisting it — are more likely to accomplish those things. The survey also found that congregations that have strength in looking to the future are more likely to have worshipers with a strong sense of belonging and leaders who encourage and empower everyone to play a part in carrying out the vision.

And future-looking congregations are more likely to have lots of worshipers who are new to the place — who began attending there within the last five years. People who are new may be less strongly attached to the traditions of the place, to thinking things need to be done “the way we’ve always done them.” They bring their own experiences and enthusiasm, along with new ideas about the way things, God willing, could be.

Some congregations also think more about weaknesses than about strengths. They are not used to considering “best practices” or identifying what they do well and why. “There’s a tendency to try to fix things, to figure out what’s wrong,” said Cynthia Woolever, one of the researchers with the U.S. Congregational Life project.

Most congregations have between three and five strengths, and none of them do equally well on all 10. So what’s the most important strength for a congregation to have? “We would love to find the magic answer to that. Once we know that, we can fix everything,” Woolever said. “But in reality congregations need multiple strengths.”

It’s this simple: Find what you do best and build for the future on those strengths. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer.

Size doesn’t matter so much — small congregations are just as willing to look ahead as are bigger ones — but the age of worshipers does. Congregations with younger worshipers tend to be more future-focused. Some might expect that older worshipers would especially want to look ahead, that they would want to leave a strong legacy for the future and make sure the congregation will continue to thrive once they’re gone. But congregations with a higher percentage of older worshipers do not tend to be as forward-looking as those with lots of younger worshipers. Perhaps older worshipers are more invested in the old, familiar ways, while younger people are connected to the rhythm of change, bringing with them energy, flexibility, a willingness to be innovative, and excitement about what lies around the next bend.

Where should we go from here?